As northeast Congo reels from militia hits, church steps up peace efforts

By Fredrick Nzwili | Catholic News Service

NAIROBI, Kenya (CNS) — As Ituri, a province in northeastern Congo, reels from yet another deadly attack, Catholic leaders there are talking to the militias in an effort to prevent more violence.

The militia leaders are issuing demands as they promise to stop the violence, said to Father Justin Zanamuzi, the vicar general of Bunia Catholic diocese in the province, but have not kept their word, carrying out more attacks.

The attacks have made the work of the church very difficult, Father Zanamuzi said, as they cut off the people from the church and disrupt peace.

A victim of ethnic violence rests inside a hospital in Ituri, Congo, June 25, 2019. As Ituri, a northeastern province, reels from yet another deadly attack, Catholic leaders there are talking to the militias in an effort to prevent more violence. (CNS photo/Olivia Acland, Reuters)

“It is very difficult for the church to do its work,” Father Zanamuzi told Catholic News Service. “The church and the bishop have been reaching out to the militia leaders asking them to stop the violence. They promise they would stop, but give demands. For example, they ask the government to recognize their military ranks and titles.”

Pope Francis is expected to visit the country July 2-5. He is scheduled to visit Kinshasa, the capital, and Goma, in the eastern province of North Kivu. While there, he is expected to inspire and encourage the people who have been victims of war for many years.

An example is the people of Ituri, a mineral and natural resources-rich region in the country’s northeast. Precious minerals such as gold, coltan, cassiterite, diamond and oil are found in plenty. The region’s forests are a source of timber.

Church leaders believe the competition for resources is one of the main causes of the violence — among others such as ethnic animosity, political manipulation and the want to be recognized.

At the center of the violence in Ituri is Cooperative for the Development of Congo, or CODECO, a mainly ethnic Lendu militia group, and the Ituri Self-Defense Popular Front, a mainly Hema ethnic militia popularly known as Zaire. The Lendu are agriculturalists while the Hema are herders.

On May 8, a militia group attacked an artisanal mine in the region, killing at least 40 people. Local sources said more than 100 people were missing. On Feb. 1, an attack left at least 60 people dead. The victims were either shot dead or chopped with machetes. About 40 others were injured in the attack.

Father Zanamuzi said church leaders were staying close to the people, frequently visiting those affected by the militia violence, some of whom were in camps for displaced persons. The church has also stepped up its preaching of peace.

“The people are crying out for help. They believe the government is able to stop the violence, but its efforts are not visible. The people are disappointed and discouraged,” said Father Zanamuzi.

Meanwhile, a priest in the eastern part of the country said people could not work properly to threats posed by the militia groups.

Father Celestine Muhindo Muhayirwa, a priest from Goma Diocese, said some armed groups in the area have stepped up attacks recently. The March 23 Movement, which had remained dormant, has launched new attacks in the region.

“We don’t know when or where they will attack. We’re praying. The bishops are praying,” he said. “We are appealing to the government to bring peace so that the people can go home and carry out their normal activities in peace.”

Author: Catholic News Service

Catholic News Service is the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ news and information service.

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